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Anya Wassenberg

born in: Burlington, Ontario Canada
lives in: southern ontario
I'm a longtime freelance writer with a wide ranging background that includes everything from corporate copywriting to journalistic nonfiction to short stories and media from print to web, with a smidge of radio thrown in for good measure, and a sideline... [more]

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The National Film Board of Canada has a cool library of films that you can view online, but if you're in downtown Toronto, the NFB Mediatheque is one of my favourite stops.  They feature ultra comfy, ultra convenient digital viewing stations with an incredible library of 4,600 films you can view - and it's all free too. The only thing you'll need to watch for is groups of school children on weekdays, and check the calendar for weekend events that can take up the space. I love the ultra modern vibe and - natch - the films! There are lots of free screenings, and workshops that can give you the basics of animation and other techniques. It's a real hidden gem right in the Entertainment District at John & Richmond.

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posted on 06.12.09

Here, in no particular order, are twelve great film blogs (other than this one, of course!) that will keep you up to date and in the know in the wide world of film:

Filmmaker Magazine bills itself as "the" magazine for independent film, and it's certainly chock full of industry news, the scoop on festivals, conferences, director's interviews and more.

World Film keeps you abreast of just that, with an ongoing survey of news and reviews from festivals and screenings around the world.

A Steady Diet of Films - regular entries by a filmmaker and film afficionado who gets to festivals, screenings, interviews and more.

GreenCine Daily, all the news, all the time from the people at GreenCine, a DVD rental outfit.

The House Next Door - blog from NYPress critic Matt Zoller Seitz.

Alternative Film Guide - a great blog that offers an offbeat look at the world of films.

Bright Lights After Dark a companion to the mag, a hybrid of academic and popular voices and views.

Invisible Cinema - all about the obscure world of experimental film.

Film Art - observations on film and film art by Prof. David Bordwell.

The Auteurs Notebook - a group of opinionated reviewers and film writers.

Twitch - all about the Asian film scene and market.

European Films - new films from the "old" continent.

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A Primer on African Film

Here in the non-African world, we hear so little of African film and film makers, it may come as a surprise to know the industry is alive and well on the continent, and made up of a number of film centres, including the second largest film business in the world. This isn't a big list, but here are a few reference points, and ways to start checking it out.

Respected as a writer of international note and often called the "Father of African film", Ousmane Sembene (sometimes called Sembene Ousmane,) was born in Senegal on January 1, 1923, the son of a fisherman in a Muslim household. After serving in a corps of the French Army in WWII, he came home to take part in the 1947 railroad strike that became the genesis of his best known novel, Les bouts de bois de Dieu (God's Bits of Wood). Later that year, he ended up in France, working as an illegal immigrant on the docks and in factories, eventually joining the Communist party. His works are infused with his drive for social change. It led him from books to film, and his first feature, La Noire de.. released in 1966 and based on his own short story, was the first feature ever released by a sub-Saharan African director. His films deal with the realities of life in Africa, in fact much of the time, of his own life, and common themes include postcolonialism, a critical view of religion, and an admiration of African women. 1975's Xala based on his well known novel, is considered a classic. His final film, Moolaade a 2004 feature, won awards at Cannes. He died in 2007 at the age of 84 in Senegal.

Check out a discussion of his films, along with those of Haile Gerima, an Ethiopian filmmaker responsible for the award winning Teza (2008). Born in 1946 in Gondar, Ethiopia, Gerima caught the film bug in 1970, and immigrated to California, eventually earning a BFA and MFA from the University of California in film. His films, too, deal with the realities of the human condition. Teza tells the story of a young Ethiopian who returns from a university education in Germany to live under the Marxist regime of Mingistu Haile Mariam. Gerima has been a professor of film at Howard University in Washington, D.C. since 1975.

Nollywood - the Nigerian film business is second largest in the world, second only to India's, and yes, you heard that right, larger than that of the United States. Profiled in 2007's Welcome to Nollywood documentary, the $250 million a year Nigerian film business produces a staggering 200 videos for the home video market every month, according to reliable media sources. While its roots trace back to the 1960's, the advent of cheaper digital filmmaking gave a the industry a huge boost, and it has grown exponentially over the last twenty years or so, virtually replacing foreign media on store shelves, with huge exports across the continent and in fact the world.

With so many videos produced, it's natural that there's a range of films. The struggles of modern Africans, often torn between traditional ways and the modern world, are a common thread across the continent, and in films like young director Tchidi Chikere's Show Me Heaven. Traditional values often win though, in contrast with North American sensibilities, in films like The Prostitute. Ghana rivals Nigeria with another burgeoning film scene, with South Africa's film business is another growing success.

Here are some recent films, made by up and coming filmmakers to keep your eyes on:

Bamako - a beautiful and award winning 2007 film about Africa and globalisation by filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, born in Mauritania and raised in Mali.
Clouds Over Conakry Guinean director Cheick Fantamady Camara's impressive feature debut, a romantic comi-tragedy that deals with the traditionalist/modernist divide with a supernatural twist.


Film is very much a part of African cultures - a million people attended the 25th Pan-African Film Festival (FESPACO) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso in 1995, profiled in the clip below.

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Here, in no particular order, are five of my favourite documentaries - each for a different reason.

Ghost Bird (2009 - Small Change Productions, Scott Crocker, producer/director) This tragi-comic documentary had its premiere at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto in spring 2009, and tells the story of the "re-discovery" of the ivory billed woodpecker in Arkasas. Thought to be extinct, the bird's sighting set the region afire with dreams of merchandising tie ins and excited scientists and politicians alike, and the film, in telling the story of this as yet undocumented re-discovery, reveals much more about our dubious relationship with the natural world.

Books of James (2006 - Ho Tam). Ho Tam is a visual artist who's produced many interesting films, and Books of James is perhaps the most ambitious. It tells the story of James Wentzy, an AIDS survivor and activist, and his often melancholy journey through the decades from the heady days of ACTUP activism to slipping off the radar of public consciousness through a fascinating series of visuals based on James' own handwritten and illustrated diary notebooks, along with other footage. A unique concept and vision (see image above).

Fierce Light (2009 - Velcrow Ripper) With a poetic vision and inspiring message, this documentary was released in spring 2009, and deals with the filmmakers personal search for what happens when people combine belief and action. A slew of thinkers and activists, (including celebs like Darryl Hannah and Danny Glover,) lend their voices to what amounts to an inspiring spiritual message with gorgeous visuals. (see trailer below)

Jamesie and the All Stars (2007 - Andrea E. Leland Productions, LLC) Without this surprising film, I would know nothing of Quelbe, a form of swingy roots music indigenous to the Virgin Islands. The African slaves brought over by Danish settlers were forbidden to play their own music or their own instruments, so Quelbe formed with appropriated European instruments and found objects, combining the Euro quadrille with an African beat. The strength of the film lies in its great music and the laidback charm of Jamesie and the other musicians. The songs most often deal with everyday stories and issues, sometimes frankly sexual, as in "Fire in de Water" (or what happens when a woman walks through the reeds on her way to shore..) and sometimes political - one of the musicians found himself in trouble after writing about an out of control pothole situation.

Sicko (2007 - Michael Moore) He's hardly a struggling indie filmmaker anymore, but I had to include one of Moore's popular documentaries. As a Canadian, the words "health care" (so often in our news, so often debated!) make me want to run and hide, so I have to applaud anyone who can take that term and make it into an engrossing and entertaining story. I especially liked the way he slyly casts 9/11 survivors and Cuba into the debate.

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“Velcrow Ripper's earlier work, Scared Sacred, is one of my fav docs... I haven't seen his new one so I'll definitely have to check it out. I also like Michael Moore, though I think his exaggerations undermine his points... I've never been to a walk-in clinic and seen a doctor in under two hours!”
Posted over 4 years ago
Anya Wassenberg replies:
“I have "Lanterns of Memory", another one of Velcrow's films, in my Favourites too - http://www.artandculture.com/atoms/show?atom_id=1527&atom_type=video”
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Artists

John Cage
R. Bruce Elder

Categories

Avant Garde Film
Film Criticism And Theory

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Dreamy

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Avant Garde Film
Canadian Film

Film as Experience - In Conversation with R. Bruce Elder
(originally published in 2007 in FilmPrint Magazine - a very interesting discussion of film in the larger scheme of things)

“Years ago, I used to tell people, only half facetiously, that I was a film maker because I wasn't a creative artist..”

So begins R. Bruce Elder, avant garde film maker, writer and long time professor at Ryerson University, currently Program Director of the Joint Graduate Programme in Communication & Culture between Ryerson and York Universities.  His films have been shown at the AGO, MOMA, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, in Berlin and Italy, among many other places, and among the accolades is a Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Indpendent/Experimental Film and Video in 1981.  For the last two years or so, Elder has been working on The Young Prince, a new film edging towards completion in which the very form and process point to an explanation of his half joking assertion.  Like much of the work in Elder's 30+ year, 26 film catalogue, The Young Prince examines notions of transformation along alchemical themes.

“I've been working with a lot of tools that leave lots of scope for chance operations in my films,” he explains.  “They (contain) two kinds of 'chance events'.  I've been writing programs that assign processing to the images randomly.  (In addition), we've been hand processing and treating the film a little roughly, so the fluctuations in chemistry are very evident.  It's a dialogue between old technology and new technology.”  Physical and digital transformations of the images echo the films central concerns.  “With this fluctuating chemistry, ideas of energy move very much into the centre of the work.  There's a long history of thought on energies within us related to energies of the cosmos, of bringing our energies into concordance with the cosmos.”

The grounding of his work in philosophies, along with reference to other art forms, is a central proposition in much of Elder's films – and his university lectures.  The Young Prince is simply the culmination of a decades long process of thought.  “I didn't have any designs on nature myself.  I collect things.  (In the earlier years of my career) I was able to work largely without ideas, and that's a rather blissful state, a state of no mind, as much as possible, to not allow ideas, conceptions to get in the way – to have no filter between me and the world.  I used to take my camera everywhere and collect the gifts that were waiting for me.  But that came to an end.  In the early '90's, it became apparent I could no longer do that, I had reams and reams of film... The way I'd been working became completely unaffordable.  I thought about quitting film, making videos, but film really does evoke in me the feelings of being in a church.  I do associate the light of film with a kind of sacred light – similar to that of gothic cathedrals, and even when videos are projected, I don't feel that same kind of sacred resonance.

It occurred to me that this interest in light as being something sacred could be connected with another longstanding interest in number and certain harmonies.. Musical patterns can be represented in mathematical terms.  Pythagorean ideas interested me as well – harmony + light + number.  Since I was quite young, I wondered whether light could be represented that way.  Around the same time I was wondering about this came the advent of personal computers.  I put together computers early on, and it occurred to me they might have aesthetic applications.  I looked at other fields of mathematics that would interest me – refractive geometry, self similarity.. It really seemed to me that I'd found the solution to my crisis.”

His output as a film maker had been prodigious, ten between 1975's Breath/Light/Birth, and 1981's “1857” (Fool's Gold), including the LA Film Critics Association's nod to The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1979).  Critics of his work found the earlier pieces slower and intellectually dense, in contrast to his own assessment.  Since “1857” (Fool's Gold), his films have been noted as having a more visceral quality.  In 1982, he began to release what would become a sprawling 42 hour cycle of 12 films, The Book of All the Dead, based on Dante's Inferno, beginning with Illuminated Texts, then following with a series of Lamentations and then Exultations. 

“I began using algorithms, composed music, but I had a nagging sense of dissatisfaction.  I wasn't any longer simply collecting these gifts I'd encountered on my path, I was more and more a traditional artist.  But, then I began to find (John) Cage's ideas interesting.  His work had the advantage of suggesting how one could allow work to come forth, but not impose on it.  If you begin to use repetitive chance operations, if you let your work to a certain extent be decided by them, it turns the work over to a natural process again at a different level.”

The Young Prince is fifth in a new cycle of films begun with A Man Whose Life Was Full of Woe Has Been Surprised by Joy (1997), and he's been aided in the labour intensive process by a team of assistants, with some help from the engineering department at Ryerson.  The new cycle is called The Book of Praise, after the Presbyterian hymnal.

“I did talk myself into believing that film is a way of imparting energy.  I became convinced that strong pieces have the effect of bringing the energies in you into some kind of harmony – I'm convinced that's how Baroque composers understood their polyphonies.  The chemical and electrical processing I've been doing has been a way of reflecting on this kind of construct.

One way in which we're aware of this transmission of energies is in the erotic..we hope for that transmission of energies.”  The body, and nude human forms, including the frankly erotic, are often the base subject of his work.  He sees his reverent view of that aspect of humanity as standing in opposition to much of current thought.  “I'm absolutely appalled at the way the body is represented.  What's troubling is this idea that our flesh bodies aren't somehow adequate, flesh as being unfitted to the future, that what (we should be) is a mesh of electronics, machine and flesh.”  Elder includes his holistic view of sexuality and the body in the context of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in particular, with respect to Hebrew thought.  “The natural world was brought about from divine energy, and manifests divine energy.  Because of its association with soul, the body is something we should accept, not (consider) as something available for endless transformation.  The natural world possesses an order we must respect, and not impose.”

The artist as not imposing, the film maker as not creating.  “It's allowing nature to bring forth works of art.  We only create the conditions.”

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